[Interview] Jane Morris

Jane Morris is one of the founding members of 'amaBooks, an awarding-winning publishing house based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

In this interview, Morris talks about the state of publishing in Zimbabwe:

What motivated the formation of amaBooks?

’amaBooks was started in 2001.

We started publishing a year before that -- a book of poems by John Eppel, all proceeds of which went to the Bulawayo charity, Childline.

Childline was just starting in Bulawayo at that time and I, in my work as a social worker and trainer, was helping with the training of the first volunteers and the organisation was in need of funds.

John Eppel kindly stepped forward and donated a collection of his poems, which became Selected Poems: 1965-1995.

The book sold out very quickly, which was particularly heartening for a book of poetry.

We enjoyed the process of getting the book published and a group of five of us, who had been involved in this first publication, decided to start a publishing company and ’amaBooks was born.

I was excited at the prospect of being involved in a publishing venture as I’d always had in the back of my mind that it would be something I’d like to do.

Our launch pad was the publication of two short novels that had already been written by John Eppel. At that point we had little idea of what we were getting into.

Who was involved in the publishing house's formation and what role did they play in it?

The five people involved in the Childline book who initially formed ’amaBooks were involved in different capacities -- with sales, promotion, origination and distribution. However, two pulled out in the early days because of other commitments, leaving John Eppel, Brian Jones and myself.

John is a well-known writer across Southern Africa, having won both the Ingrid Jonker Award for poetry and the M-Net Prize for Fiction. Although no longer a director, John writes prolifically and maintains his interest in 'amaBooks and we continue to publish some of his works. At the moment we are working on a collection of poems and short stories written by John and Julius Chingono that will be titled Together.

So ’amaBooks is left with two owner-directors, myself and Brian Jones.

We’ve tended to learn the job of publishing as we’ve gone along and it’s been quite a steep learning curve.

Having studied literature at university, the task of editing falls largely to me, and Brian, who is a mathematician, tends to concentrate on origination, sales, marketing and distribution, though our roles are not rigid so we both do whatever needs to be done.

Which was the first set of books that you published? And, is it still in print?

As I mentioned earlier, we were very fortunate in having two books ready to publish, so we started with these two short satirical novels of John Eppel, The Curse of the Ripe Tomato and The Holy Innocents.

The main reason we chose to publish them as our first books was the quality of John's writing, which we believed would be a good beginning for ’amaBooks. Pleased by the success of the poetry collection, we felt that the Zimbabwe reading public would be receptive to more of John's work, which proved to be the case. These books are no longer in print.

In all, how many books has amaBooks published so far?

To date, we have published 23 books, the majority being fiction.

We have also published several books of poetry and a few titles focusing on local history and culture.

Our books have been well received but unfortunately we started out at a very difficult time, with the economic climate in Zimbabwe not being very favourable to the sale of books, particularly books that are not set books in schools.

We are members of the African Books Collective who distribute our books in the USA and Europe, where they continue to get good reviews.

Among the books you've published so far, are there titles that have been received better than others?

The four books in the Short Writings series -- Short Writings from Bulawayo I, II and III and Long Time Coming: Short Writings from Zimbabwe -- have continued to remain favourites.

Several commentators on Zimbabwean literature have remarked that short stories are ideally suited to the ever changing Zimbabwean scene as they offer snapshots of the situation at that time and have served as a form of truth telling.

In our case, the short story format also presented an opportunity for a variety of voices to be heard from the different communities that make up Zimbabwe, the stories invite the reader into the different realities of the writers.

We were keen to publish new writers, alongside more established writers and the Short Writings series allowed us to do this.

People, both within and outside Zimbabwe, have enjoyed the series and the latest in the collection, Long Time Coming, continues to receive good reviews. The New Internationalist magazine choose the book as one of their two best books of 2009, out of those they had reviewed.

The titles of John Eppel’s that we have brought out continue to be popular with the book buying public and there is a continuing interest in his work in academia.

Our last publication, the mystery/romance This September Sun by Bryony Rheam, was a bit of a departure from our usual publications but has sold very well.

Bryony now lives in Zambia so has launched the book there as well.

The novel has been particularly popular amongst women in Zimbabwe, perhaps because they identify with some of the main characters in the book, the narrator Ellie and her grandmother Evelyn.

The book covers the period just after the Second World War, up to recent times.

As publishers, what are the biggest challenges that you face?

The economic situation here over the last few years has made survival as a publisher very difficult -- buying a book, particularly one that is not a set school book, is always going to be a low priority for someone struggling to find enough money for food for their family.

When there was rampant inflation any payments received from the few bookshops that functioned were worthless by the time we received them.

The only way we have been able to survive has been through the support of donors, who have helped with printing costs and the purchase of equipment, when that has been necessary.

When we first started we were able to fund the printing of a book from the sales of the previous one but this became impossible with the economic decline.

With dollarization the situation has improved, though there is still little money around for people in Zimbabwe to buy books of creative writing.

Another challenge facing the publishing industry as a whole is that of the introduction of e-books and not knowing what the impact of that will be. Some of our books are available as e-books through the African Books Collective.

Are there any challenges around sales outside of Zimbabwe?

The challenges we face with sales outside of the country are mainly due to cost. Printing is not cheap in Zimbabwe, partly because low demand means we have to print small numbers of books, and distribution to other countries is expensive.

Getting books into large chains, such as Exclusive Books, is very difficult, so our titles are mostly sold in independent bookshops.

Our books are available internationally online through outlets such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble and the African Books Collective.

As publishers, what would you say has been your greatest achievement?

Apart from simply surviving, not an easy task given the problems of the last few years, I would say the publication of new writers; we’ve published 102 writers so far.

Several of those we published first in the Short Writings from Bulawayo series have gone on to be published elsewhere and to have books of their own published. Chris Mlalazi and Bryony Rheam are the first ones to come to mind, but we are also looking forward to others pushing their way to the top; there are always one or two new exciting writers in each of the collections.

What do you enjoy most about publishing?

There are many things I enjoy about publishing.

There is a lot of variety with no two days being the same.

I enjoy the independence and the flexibility and doing something I love.

Working with writers and discovering new talent can be exciting. There is always that feeling of anticipation when opening up a new manuscript that it will be the ‘great Zimbabwean novel’. It’s very satisfying when you read a really good piece and have the pleasure of telling the writer you want to publish it.

Publishing has opened new doors and created new experiences for us -- book launches and working with young writers, it’s certainly very different from my previous work experience.

We’ve also been involved with other work connected with writing.

My involvement with the literary arts sector at the Intwasa Arts Festival koBulawayo has given me the opportunity to work with writers from outside Zimbabwe such as Owen Sheers and Veronique Tadjo.

A project has started in Bulawayo that we’re very excited about; where groups of young people have been given copies of our books to read and discuss -- we’re hoping that this will stimulate an interest in literature amongst those who wouldn’t have the chance otherwise.

Another opportunity has come through invitations by various organisations to talk about the work we do in publishing.

What are your plans for the future?

There are a few projects we’re working on, including a short story collection jointly with a UK publisher and the collection of short stories and poems by Julius Chingono and John Eppel.

Short term plans include attending the Cape Town and Jozi Book Fairs which will give us the opportunity of meeting publishers from outside Zimbabwe.

What are some of the things you have in common with other publishers in Zimbabwe who are doing work that is similar to what 'amaBooks is doing?

Weaver Press in Harare also publish creative writing but are more established than ourselves.

Weaver also publish more non-fiction -- history, politics, environment.

In general, what would you say are the biggest challenges that Zimbabwean publishers, as a group, are facing? And, what can or should be done about these challenges?

As with other businesses in Zimbabwe the biggest challenge has been the state of the economy. People want to read books but don’t have the money to buy them as they are considered a luxury.

Publishers that produce books that are on school syllabi have fared better, particularly of late, as there has been donor money to purchase school texts. Money is needed to stock both school and other libraries so that children and adults can read for pleasure.

Among the books you've published, are there any that have been nominated or awarded prizes, either locally, regionally or internationally?

Awards we've received include:
  • the Zimbabwe Book Publishers Association Award's first prize for Literature in English which went to Short Writings from Bulawayo;
  • the Best First Book prize which went to Erina by Wim Boswinkel;
  • the Best Non-fiction prize which went to Zimbabwe's Cultural Heritage by Pathisa Nyathi, and
  • the Best Fiction (Poetry and Drama) which went to Sonatas by Deon Marcus.
Marcus' Sonatas and Chris Mlalazi's Dancing with Life also received First Prizes in the Outstanding First Creative Published Book category of the Zimbabwe National Arts Merit Awards (NAMA) while Echoes of Young Voices received a nomination in the Outstanding First Creative Published Book category.

Similarly, Short Writings from Bulawayo III; Long Time Coming: Short Writings from Zimbabwe and John Eppel's White Man Crawling received nominations in the NAMA Best Fiction category.

Chris Mlalazi's Dancing with Life also received Honourable Mention in Noma Award for Publishing in Africa while Long Time Coming: Short Writings from Zimbabwe was chosen by New Internationalist as one of their two Best Books of 2009.

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